Walden No 'Sucker' When It Comes to Land Management

To understand the size of Republican Rep. Greg Walden's Oregon district, place it over a map of the northeastern United States. It covers almost all of Pennsylvania, half of Maryland and West Virginia, and portions of Virginia and Ohio combined.

And almost 60 percent of it is owned by the federal government.

That's why, when Walden stepped up this week to support an amendment that would open up the Endangered Species Act for a retooling, it was personal.

"This is so important [considering] where we're coming from in the Klamath [River] Basin," Walden told Foxnews.com, calling the area of his 72,000-square-mile district "ground zero for the impact of misapplied science."

Last summer, farmers there stood by as the federal government cut off vital irrigation water in order to help preserve the suckerfish population, an endangered species. A $385,000 peer review study later found that not only were federal data faulty, but that the suckerfish might have benefited from lower water levels instead.

"The basin suffered a $1 million to $2 million impact," Walden said in a press conference Wednesday to promote the bill he co-authored requiring ESA species listings and environmental impact studies to be subject to peer review by experts from the National Academy of Sciences.

"We need to re-codify these laws not with the intention of changing the environmental standards, but with the intention of streamlining the process" and bringing "sound science" back into ESA decisions, Walden said.

The bill passed by the House Resources Committee by a 22-to-18 vote on Wednesday will have a difficult time getting to a full House vote anytime soon, observers say.

But members of the Western Caucus, who support all measures to reform ESA, say they will not give up in the face of environmentalist pressure or political correctness. Like Walden, they said that their constituents depend on their leadership to be a buffer between citizens and the federal grip on their lands.

"Greg has a real understanding of the problems that government has caused in the West," said C.L. "Butch" Otter, R-Idaho, who complained that "snails and frogs can take precedence over the rights of my constituents."

But not everyone thinks Walden is another Henry David Thoreau.

"The Republican bill provides access for some stakeholders while keeping others at an arm's length," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

Democrats offered a substitute bill that would offer "equal time for all peers" in the review process, a provision that opponents to the GOP bill fear without which will be the first step toward eliminating the ESA altogether.

"His work on the ESA is not on behalf of the beleaguered landowners, but to assist major corporations and other land-use businesses to make a bigger profit off of Oregon lands and to damage the legacy we want to leave our children," said Peter Beckley, the Democratic challenger to Walden's seat in November.

"It goes along with the Republican philosophy of 'let's tear down every regulation that stands in the way of making a profit,'" he said.

But friends of Walden say the characterization that Walden is a friend of big interests is untrue.

Walden is a "leader of thoughtful environmental policy, sound science and property rights," said ally Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah.

Walden also said he doesn't fully understand the charge especially since environmental pressures on the federal management services, including ongoing lawsuits and protests, have forced the district to pay with jobs. Double-digit unemployment plagues his district, he added, including 10 percent in his hometown of Hood River.

"Right now, it's the reverse, the property owners have no say," he said.

Walden, who served a brief stint as a press secretary on Capitol Hill in the 1980s before coming back to his hometown to run a radio station and run for office, is a good fit for this part of the country, his supporters say.

While the district runs over thousands of square miles, only a fraction is actually populated. It is mostly rural, pro-Republican and generally suspicious of the federal activity on the thousands of acres it oversees. It differs greatly from its more liberal neighbors to the west, in places like the city of Portland.

Fiscally conservative and more socially moderate, Walden has worked with western lawmakers to press for rural reforms and defend landowners' rights. In his first term, he enacted legislation that mitigated a federal proposal to create 175,000 acres of wilderness in Oregon. Instead, incentives were enacted for public-private uses of the land.

Though Campaigns and Elections' Oddsmaker gives Walden a 70-percent chance of retaining his seat, Beckley said he is campaigning hard to inform Oregon's citizens that they have an alternative — a more environmentally friendly, less "big business" one at that.

"If we want to look long-term we have to look at [a] solution to keep this district sustainable. Walden looks at quick fixes," he said. "That's my concern, finding long-term solutions."

Walden said his work on the ESA and land management issues all tie in with his efforts to help his constituents keep their jobs. And chipping away at the high unemployment rates and bringing prescription drug coverage to rural seniors is just one "long-term effort" he seeks to pursue.

"These are some of the critical issues out there," he said.